Supermarkets have around 3 days worth of food on hand at any one time – they simply don’t have the facilities to store more. This means that disruptions to the supply chain or rapid changes in customer behavior can quickly strip shelves bare. Brisbane shoppers discovered this first hand during the 2011 flood. Supermarkets were unprepared for the panic buying. Andy was told to leave the supermarket by the manager and I saw empty shelves first hand.
|Brisbane shelves empty during the January 2011 Flood|
When the flood hit, the Rocklea markets were inundated and disabled for days. It took a Herculean effort to bring it back into service and cost millions of dollars in losses and repairs. Rocklea is a central distribution point for much of the state’s produce, moving 600,000 tonnes annually. The damage to infrastructure and farms in the Lockyer Valley caused further disruption to production and distribution.
|Rocklea Markets during the January 2011 Flood|
Electricity supply was cut off for several weeks in some areas and families were unable to keep perishable items without purchased ice or generators. The rise of the supermarket has meant a decline in home preservation of food - there’s no need to keep much for any length of time when you can just pop down to Coles or Woolies, right? The typical pantry might have a week’s supply of food. With very little in the garden or from the neighbours to draw on it’s hard to see how this system provides security.
Cyclone Yasi was next, battering Far North Queensland. Banana farmers were hard hit, with 95% losses reported in Tully and Innisfail. Prices quickly reflected the scarcity of bananas – people collectively ate fewer bananas and those who did are likely to have the disposable income to do it. Food security in this system is rationed by wealth.
|Monoculture of bananas flattened after Cyclone Yasi 2011 (|
The situation is returning to ‘normal’ day-by-day. Given the complexity and length of the food distribution system it’s remarkable that the effects weren’t greater. This is a good time, however, to reflect on how to solve this problem – how do we source our food? We may not always have the resources to run it or recover from disruptions. Following are a brief look at other major issues threatening our food supply.
Modern agricultural practices do not conserve this critical resource. Plowing, drenching in harsh and often persistent pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and artificial fertilisers rapidly deplete the soil. Stripping the land of trees and leaving fields bare between crops increases wind and water erosion and salinity. Shallow rooted crops and pasture allow minerals to leach. Heavy equipment and cattle compact the ground. Good agricultural land continues to be lost to suburban sprawl.
|Industrial agriculture causes soil erosion|
Rainfall patterns are altered with climate change – droughts are longer and rains are heavier and reliable rains once centered on good land have shifted. As salinity increases, the quality of water supplies for irrigation and feedstock decline. Over-reliance on irrigation and thirsty crops has meant water is become progressively scarcer. Settlement and land-use patterns exacerbate flooding, causing expensive damage.
The median age of Australian farmers is almost 60 and rising, as younger generations seek better conditions and pay in other sectors. Health and injury concern these older farmers. As the baby boomers retire there will be a scarcity of farmers to take over and knowledge will be lost.
Industrial chemicals – pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and fertlisers - applied to land are often persistent or carry heavy metals such as cadmium that build up in the soil or contaminate ground water. These are taken up and concentrated by crops and animals. Low fertility and reproductive organ disorders in Denmark led to a government push to organic practices. Endosulfan, a known endocrine disruptor, has only recently been banned in Australia but still being phased out. DDT still remains on some farm land. Food imported into Australia is not necessarily tested for chemicals banned or monitored here.
Pests, Diseases and Weeds
Conventional food production uses large scale monocultures, offering a buffet for pests and a dearth of habitat for predators. The result is, when conditions are right, pests get to plague proportions. A recent locust plague in southern Australia was projected to cost $2 billion in damage. That is food which won’t reach people and income lost to farmers who must produce future crops.
One of the sprays authorised (and encouraged) by the government to mitigate damage was fipronil, a persistent pesticide that is known to be toxic to insects in general (including bees), lizards, fish, frogs, and birds. It may also be carcinogenic to humans. A government report states
Although buffer zones around waterways help minimise the risk to water supplies and aquatic organisms, there is still the risk of off-target applications, spray drift and runoff from rain.
|Locust swarm in southern Australia 2010|
The overuse of biocides has put evolutionary pressure on targeted species, resulting in resistance. Increasing amounts of poison must be used, but sometimes it becomes ineffective. Pigweed, once controlled by glyphosate, has become a serious problem in the US, where it can stop combine harvesters in their tracks.
The use of monocultures and artificial fertilisers provides ideal conditions for disease outbreaks. Great efforts are made to keep contaminated material out of production zones. Outbreak could be devastating - the Irish potato famine caused by blight where approximately 1 million died demonstrates the potential impact. More recently, colony collapse disorder in bees across the world, caused in part by pesticides and abusive treatment, has the potential to dramatically reduce crop yields.
Perhaps not visible or dramatic, but the nutritional quality of food available in supermarkets has been declining progressively. While bulk carbohydrates and fats have never been cheaper, fresh fruit and vegetables have been bred for long shelf life and aesthetics, rather than nutrition - or taste for that matter. Produce is often transported thousands of kilometers, frozen and otherwise stored for extended periods of time before being sold and consumed. The result is eating more to get the same nutrition, dietary supplements, or malnutrition and associated diseases.
Resource Volatility and Depletion
Industrial agriculture depends on many resources and long supply chains to operate smoothly. Some of the major ones include
- Oil for fuel, plastics, lubricants, roads and chemicals
- Natural gas for fertiliser and electricity
- Coal for electricity
- Phosphorus and other minerals for fertiliser
- Iron, copper, aluminium, rubber and other shipped industrial products
- Expensive research and development to continue holding back nature
- Extensive and expensive infrastructure (roads, power, fuel & water distribution)
These resources are sourced and operated from finite mineral deposits. The pattern of exploitation is to take the biggest and most easily produced deposits first, and then work your way down until it becomes uneconomical. Production curves look something like a bell. Discovery must precede production, of course, and many of these resources have peaked in discovery decades ago and are soon due for decline in production. The most oil was discovered in the 1960s, for example, and in spite of current high tech equipment we are consuming more oil than we are finding.
Many of these vital minerals are sourced from unstable parts of the world. Wars and other events can quickly disrupt supply. The oil shocks of the 1970s were caused by withdrawal of small supplies of oil from the market. Disruptions in supply can occur close to home too. In 2000, disgruntled farmers and truck drivers blockaded refineries in the UK and brought the country to a halt. Supermarkets shelves were empty.
The impact of the protest was much deeper than anticipated because it struck at a particularly vulnerable point of the UK economy -- the oil distribution network, which had been organized along just-in-time delivery principles. This, combined with anticipated shortages by fuel consumers and consequent panic buying, magnified the impact of the protests on practically all [critical infrastructure] sectors in the UK. The disruption in the energy sector created a chain reaction among other CI sectors such as transportation, health care, food distribution, financial and government services due to their interconnectivity and interdependencies. The financial impact of the week-long fuel drought was estimated at close to £1 billion.
An Alternative Food System
It’s not an overstatement to say that the dominant Western food production and distribution system is a fragile one. We’ve had the energy over recent history, thanks to rising production of oil, gas and coal to put it together and keep it going, but this may not last much longer.
There are many strategies to build a sustainable and resilient alternative. Permaculture provides an approach for working with nature and using resources efficiently and sustainably so that shocks are avoided, minimized or used to advantage. One of the first applications of permaculture is often to provide food for yourself, where you live. What are the advantages from a food security stand point?
- Soil can be built with care, without harsh chemicals and heavy machinery
- Water can be caught from the dwelling for future irrigation, trapped in the soil, and conserved under mulch
- You can learn from experience and neighbours, passing lessons down to your children, and not be so dependent on unknown people far away
- You can have your soil tested and know what’s going into your food
- A diversity of crops, animals and predator habitat keeps pests & diseases under control
- In a mature system weeds have little space, or can be used as a resource
- A healthy and rich soil will mean healthy and rich food, full of nutrition
- You can grow varieties that are not available in supermarkets
- Food does not need heavy machinery, spraying, packaging, transport, refrigeration, artificial ripening, marketing or taxing – all savings to you
- Maintenance and harvest is not limited by machinery, so you can design a polyculture that takes advantage of the productive symbioses
- With enough food grown in towns and cities, communities can feed themselves and help each other out as natural disasters occur
|Food Security: looking out your window and seeing food|
Of course there are challenges with this approach. It does take time, patience, and a willingness to invest in productive systems. Crops can fail and animals can die. By being resourceful, having a determined attitude, learning from mistakes, giving and receiving surpluses from others and keenly observing nature you will move in the right direction. There are many enthusiastic people making this change who can help. Getting to know them and sharing what you can is certain to pay off in hard times and good.